Halloween’s a pretty theatrical holiday. Maybe the most theatrical holiday. I mean, we carve faces in pumpkins and light them up with candles, dress our lawns with cardboard tombstones and cotton cobwebs and creaking coffins, and go out in elaborate costumes — or stay in and scare ourselves sleepless with spooky movies. It’s a little surprising therefore that there aren’t more movies that really push the actual holiday itself front and center.
Sure, films like Ginger Snaps (2000) or Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) use Halloween as a kind of set dressing in the background, and it pops up briefly in good seasonal fare like Creepshow (1982), as well as Christina Ricci double feature The Addams Family (1991) and Casper (1995). By all means, watch any of those this October. They’re all wild fun (and far, far better than the tenth entry on this list).
But for something more entirely Halloween-centered, here are 10 of the best spooky films that take place predominantly on Halloween (or whose plots are otherwise driven by the day in mention).
Read on…if you dare…
10. House II: The Second Story (1987)
Can we take a moment to acknowledge the brazenly idiotic brilliance of this movie’s subtitle? I mean, you may as well just stop at the cover art. Nothing that happens in the movie is as wholly and completely satisfying as reading that title.
But since we’re here…
House II: The Second Story is a film that defies summarization. There’s an old-timey mummy prospector, a crystal skull that opens time portals (or maybe it’s just the house that does?), and of course the house itself! Which appears to be a blend between New England Victorian and Aztec temple—a style that was all the rage in the 1910s. The set and accompanying lighting design are actually pretty darn good for a movie of this grade, and there’s a really impressive matte painting of a prehistoric landscape complete with a claymation sauropod. There are actually way more dinosaurs in this movie than any haunted mansion film has a right to contain.
The supporting cast includes Amy Yasbeck of Wings, Bill Maher in one of the very few films in which Bill Maher plays somebody other than Bill Maher, and John Ratzenberger of Cheers single-handedly breathing life into the film’s third act in an extended cameo as a professional electrician and swashbuckler. Not to mention the animatronic dog-caterpillar hybrid that enjoys sitting in people’s laps and giving doggie kisses. They really did try to put something in this movie for everyone.
Oh, and there’s a big Halloween party too.
House II: The Second Story is indeed every bit as inane as it sounds and deserves to be seen once by everyone—and only once. I will say this is the best movie I’ve ever seen that prominently features a crystal skull. What’s that? Yes, I have seen every Indiana Jones film. Thanks for asking!
9. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)
Anyone who grew up on the deliciously twisted folktale retellings of Alvin Schwartz and the ridiculously nightmarish artwork that went with them, courtesy of professional ruiner of sweet dreams, Stephen Gammell, knows deep in their bones that the Scary Stories paperbacks deserve to be turned into motion pictures so they can mess up the sleep of and trigger completely unnecessary anxieties in as many people as possible.
Serendipitously, those are goals that deeply interest Guillermo del Toro as well.
In hindsight, Guillermo del Toro and André Øvredal’s PG-13 Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was more “mildly spooky with warm autumnal undertones” than “you better invest in a good nightlight for the next three months” as fans of the books might have expected. But there’s still plenty of fun to be found in the idea of four kids in 1968 Pennsylvania hitting up a spooky house on Halloween and coming away with more than they bargained for. With cheek-nesting spiders, creepy cornfields, Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” (and the Lana Del Rey cover), and a drive-in showing of Night of the Living Dead, you’ll get the Halloween feels for sure. Stay tuned for Part Two, currently in the works.
8. Night of the Demons (1988)
Like so many other low-budget horror efforts of the late ’80s that were modeled after successful slashers like Friday the 13th (1980) and supernatural splatterfests like The Evil Dead (1981), Night of the Demons is light on story and high on spectacle. In fact, things don’t get much more elaborate in the story department than a bunch of teens get together for a Halloween party being thrown at the local abandoned funeral parlor by goth queen supreme, Angela. Couples break off to get frisky, peeps get possessed, and the green slime starts hitting the walls from there. Go in expecting literally nothing more than that and you can’t possibly leave disappointed.
While the writing may be formulaic and at times downright nonsensical, Night of the Demons has still garnered quite the cult following. From the very cool animated titles that open the film with sashaying ghosts and skeletons plucked right out of Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” you know you’re in for some kind of a ride. Scream queen Linnea Quigley is on board to do the heavy lifting as far as the possessed performances are concerned, and Mimi Kinkade’s Angela dancing possessed by firelight and strobe light is the best use of a Bauhaus track since Tony Scott’s The Hunger.
7. The Midnight Hour (1985)
The Midnight Hour was a made-for-TV Halloween special that premiered on ABC on Friday, November 1st, 1985 … in perfect time to get everybody in the mood for next Halloween! Though set in the 1980s, the film plays like a spooky American Graffiti with radio announcements from Wolfman Jack, old-fashioned tunes from the likes of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs and soul legend Wilson Pickett, an honest-to-goodness drag race, and a genuinely sweet subplot where a Sandra Dee-type ghost from the 1950s falls for a luckless-in-love guy from the present.
The film’s tone is a bit all over the place, swinging from camp comedy to full-out horror faster than you can read an incantation in Latin (I’m assuming you can read Latin really well), and you have both zombies and vampires resurrected (and a lone werewolf running around for some reason). But on the whole this is surprisingly good made-for-TV entertainment.
The film features a fantastic, eclectic soundtrack including Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising,” a dance interlude with ghouls and costumed partyers led by Shari Belafonte, and even a bit of a tearjerker of an ending. The Midnight Hour may be all over the place, but it’s an interesting bag of Halloween goodies, that’s for sure.
6. The Halloween Tree (1993)
Nobody combines horror and heartwarming quite like Ray Bradbury, and Hanna-Barbera’s made-for-TV film The Halloween Tree from 1993 may just be the very best adaptation of one of his novels.
In the animated film, four friends head out to meet their pal, Pipkin, for some Halloween fun only to find Pipkin is in the hospital with appendicitis and that his jeopardized spirit is on the run from a cackling Crypt-Keeper type called Mr. Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud (Bradbury sure knew how to name ’em). As Moundshroud chases Pipkin around the world and far into the past, his costumed friends are taken on an unforgettable tour of the holiday’s origins.
The production values are much higher than you might expect. Bradbury warmly narrates his own poetic prose while Leonard Nimoy voices Moundshroud, and John Debney provides a tremendously lush and moving score. The film deservedly earned two Emmys for Outstanding Writing and Outstanding Animated Program and is well worth revisiting or discovering for the first time so many Halloweens later.
5. Trick ’r Treat (2007)
Horror anthologies can be as mixed as a kid’s candy haul at the end of Halloween night; rarely will every story in an anthology serve up just the stuff your sweet tooth yearns for. Michael Dougherty’s Halloween-centric tetralogy of terror, Trick ’r Treat, proves a most enjoyable exception. In Dougherty’s crack at the genre, characters flow freely in and out of each other’s stories and the stories themselves blend borders, uniquely allowing this anthology to play like one uninterrupted feature.
It’s hard to discuss any of the four tales without giving away the good stuff, but they involve the world’s most demented principal, some waterlogged zombies, a rather unorthodox party in the woods, and horrordom’s cutest little scamp, Sam, who wears a creepy scarecrow mask and looks more or less like the adorable offspring of Pumpkinhead. While some of this may sound been there, done that for a Halloween anthology that dropped in 2007, nothing in Trick ’r Treat is ever quite what it seems—and no one is truly safe until the end credits come a-rollin’.
4. Idle Hands (1999)
The late ’90s saw a resurgence of upbeat teen comedies with the likes of Clueless, Can’t Hardly Wait, American Pie, and She’s All That. It was a time when Seth Green was at the height of his goofily grinning, spiky-haired popularity and when Elden Henson of The Mighty Ducks could receive higher billing than Jessica Alba. The market was ripe for a gory horror take on the teen comedy, and Idle Hands delivered most handsomely (nope, not apologizing for that one).
While there’s plenty of seasonal goodness here from flickering jack-o’-lanterns to a Halloween school dance where you find the Offspring covering the Ramones, the real draw is Devon Sawa and the masterful physical comedy he displays as he battles his own demonically minded hand for control of the remote or to try to put it through a bagel guillotine. Props also to Christopher Hart who plays the disembodied hand itself. Hart apparently specializes in hand theatrics and was surely over the moon to hear of this project after he’d finished playing Thing in the Addams Family films. You got to hand it to him (still not apologizing), the man knows how to carve out a niche.
3. Hocus Pocus (1993)
Apparently Hocus Pocus didn’t do particularly well when it hit theaters in July of 1993. But that’s probably because Walt Disney Studios failed to realize that July is when people celebrate Christmas, not Halloween. Regardless, the tale of the three Sanderson sisters and their quest to maintain eternal youth by feeding on the lifeforces of the children of Salem, Massachusetts, has since turned into an October regular for ABC Family and has developed enough of a following to put a sequel into the works. While it may have taken a while for the masses to catch on, the black magic was all there from the beginning.
With leaves of red and brown everywhere, trick-or-treating, parental costume parties, a black cat that talks, and the cycloptic twin of The Evil Dead’s Necronomicon, Hocus Pocus exudes some mad Halloween feels. Despite playing three very different witches, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy form the perfect trio; they each manage to steal the show in their own spellbinding ways. For those leery of Disney-branded horror, there’s also death by hanging and a surprisingly gruesome Edward Scissorhandsian zombie that would laugh at Hocus Pocus’s PG rating if its mouth weren’t visibly sewn shut. Ah, the early 90s … when children’s entertainment was shamelessly traumatizing…
2. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang is a reliably entertaining bunch any season or holiday of the year, and the Peanuts TV specials have indeed covered just about all of them from Arbor Day to Valentine’s Day. But It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is widely considered one of the greatest of them all.
It’s difficult not to be drawn in by Linus’s unwavering faith in the Great Pumpkin. So stout is his belief he’s willing to forgo trick-or-treating and ends up mocked and even threatened by his candy-focused peers. Linus even concedes the Great Pumpkin may not be real but doesn’t want to know if it isn’t and shows up in that pumpkin patch anyway. With adorable resignation and a wisdom beyond his years, he says there are three things he’s learned to never discuss with other people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether the Great Pumpkin shows up for Linus or the viewer in the end. It’s all about following what you believe in and what makes you happy. At least Linus doesn’t come away from the night with a bag full of rocks, right?
If you already know all the riotous lines by heart or are simply waiting for Apple TV+ to unsink their claws from within this beloved holiday classic, try “A Stranger Things Christmas” for something similarly magical.
1. The Halloween Series (1978-????)
It’s in the title, people!
On paper, Haddonfield’s William Shatner-masked killer, Michael Myers, has to be one of the easiest cinematic slashers to evade. He only targets people in the increasingly widening friend and family circle of Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode and only comes out once a year on Halloween. Even Jason Voorhees reaps the benefits of a Friday the 13th usually falling two or three times a year. Nevertheless, the “Shape” has continued lumbering through hails of bullets, gas explosions, and high-voltage electricity across 12 films and counting (despite taking a little vacay for the massively underrated, Celtic-flavored Part III).
From John Carpenter’s iconically chilling synthesizer beats to Donald Pleasance running around wide-eyed and yelling “He’s not human!” to all those grinning jack-o’-lanterns, there’s just nothing that’ll put you in the mood for the holiday quite like one of the Halloween films. As mentioned, there are now twelve to choose from and they can be as varied in quality as a king-sized Kit Kat is from those debatably edible Wax Lips (do they still make those things?). If you’re wondering where to begin, starting at the beginning and stopping when you just can’t take it anymore is a pretty safe bet where the Halloween films are concerned (apart of course from H20 and the most recent trilogy).
The latest, Halloween Kills, is currently screening in cinemas, and you can be sure there will be plenty more down the road … because as the saying goes, “you can’t kill the boogeyman.”
Mike Ettel is a freelance journalist who enjoys watching, reading, and writing science fiction. He’s still waiting for the day dinosaur cloning is made a reality.